Q In your experience, what are the key challenges that tend to derail a caregiver’s goal of safeguarding personal health and happiness while caring for a loved one?
LEEZA There are so many challenges in caregiving that have the potential to derail one’s own health and happiness during what may be a journey lasting many years. Imagine if your spouse of 30 years suddenly cannot remember who you are or where he lives. Or if you yourself suffer from a chronic illness and must now take care of a loved one on a full-time basis. What if you are the sole wage earner in your family and your loved one now needs round-the-clock care? You can see that the challenges of caregiving are as varied as life itself.
In my own experience and in the experience of my family, and also through meeting the many people who come to Leeza’s Place and share their stories with me, it is clear that the key challenge faced by caregivers is remembering to take care of oneself—physically, mentally, and spiritually—in order to give good care to a loved one.
When a person’s life is interrupted with a health challenge, it doesn’t seem to matter how much money you might have, how many people you might know, or how much education you might have … you are still very likely frustrated, isolated, stressed, and depressed. For me, when I learned of Mom’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease, my first response was denial. For my dad, who spent many years as Mom’s primary caregiver, it was the isolation, being cut off from friends and family, which led to poor eating habits and self-medicating with alcohol. My sister Cammy became depressed, my brother Carlos put his head in the sand, and I got overbusy in order to avoid the harsh reality that we would lose Mom, memory by memory.
You can see that the key challenge facing all caregivers is to always “take your oxygen first.” It means put your physical health first, understand what depression is, take steps to overcome it, and feed your spiritual self. It makes so much sense—how can you take care of someone when you are so depressed that you can’t get yourself out of bed to face the day?
Caregivers do all kinds of things to numb their pain, deny their truth, and stuff their sadness with food, drink, shopping, and other behaviors that simply delay the inevitable. When you are a husband or wife, son or daughter, sister or brother and someone we love is suffering, we feel guilty and helpless on some level. When we tell our guests at Leeza’s Place to “take your oxygen first,” they find it counterintuitive and uncomfortable … somewhat embarrassing. It is only when we reveal that the best way to love and care for someone else is to first take care of YOU that we even begin to get their attention.
Q You write of harnessing the Three E’s: Education, Empowerment, and Energy. Can you give us an example? How did this three-pronged approach evolve?
LEEZA The Three E’s were designed by my friend, co-author, and co-founder and executive director of the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation, Dr. James Huysman. He is a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker and vastly knowledgeable about the kind of support this population of “family-first responders” needs. Creating Leeza’s Place enabled Dr. Huysman to put his knowledge to work.
In our experience, the path to caregiver success always begins with education. It has to. An unnamed enemy has way too much power over us. We have to name it and claim it before we can even think about thriving. For example, one must become educated about the disease that is taking your loved one. Understand that, while your loved one may no longer remember your name, even in the later stages of the disease they will still be able to enjoy hearing their favorite music. Become aware of your own nutritional requirements and the link between good eating habits and your ability to maintain a high energy level throughout the day. Learn about estate planning and health insurance and be ready for the day when you will no longer be able to take care of your loved one yourself.
To be able to face something with courage in spite of fear is real empowerment. Our goal is to help remind caregivers of their inherent strength and ability to take charge of their life and help others around them who are just as affected by chronic disease. The energy is also key … stress and depression are constant companions of most caregivers … they are depleted emotionally, spiritually, physically, and financially. At Leeza’s Place, we help nourish the empty energy banks through laughter therapy, reiki, dance, and art therapy along with many other programs—all offered free to extend help, hope, and healing to those who so desperately need it.
Q Your book speaks of the unique spiritual needs of caregivers. Specifically, you suggest seeking out a “spiritual companion”—someone close to you with whom you can share your thoughts. What are the potential benefits of forming such a relationship?
LEEZA In our opinion, caregiving presents an opportunity to learn to accept what we can’t change, to live and thrive in the present moment, and to let go of what we can’t control, which is most often the hope that our loved will “get better” over time. It’s an opportunity to stop wasting precious energy by resisting reality and instead embrace life, with all its pains and joys.
When we make the decision to actively choose what life has irrevocably chosen for us, we exercise our power. It can free up enormous amounts of energy needed for the day-to-day challenges of caregiving, and it presents the opportunity to live one’s life fully, instead of wasting time thinking “what if” or “things will get better.” But this takes work, and often those searching for this kind of spiritual relief seek out the help of a professional therapist to help explore one’s feelings about one’s loved one and about the situation one finds oneself in. But often it is not necessary. One can find a “spiritual companion,” who might be a close family member, a friend, one’s priest or rabbi, or someone with more experience giving care to another, with whom one can share one’s thoughts. Just talking can help us understand our own feelings about our special situation, push us to reevaluate our priorities, and force us to think about what really matters most to us. So, as we see it, caregiving can be an opportunity to learn and to grow, not despite the challenges and the trouble, but because of them.
Q Does caring for oneself actually improve the care of an ailing loved one?
LEEZA Of course! I will give you an example from my own family’s experience, but one that is very common place. My Dad, then in his early 70s, would often take Mom for a walk around the lake just behind their home in South Carolina. Dad had not been getting much exercise for a couple of years, since caring for Mom had become a full-time job. One day, while out for a walk, Mom slipped and fell, and he could barely lift her up, and in trying he wrenched his back pretty badly. So badly, in fact, that he couldn’t do the simplest tasks for Mom, or for himself for that matter, for a few weeks. But had he been taking care of himself, even by doing the simple exercises we describe in Take Your Oxygen First, he would have been able to help Mom and avoid his own injury.
Q What are your plans for the future? Do you have any projects in the works? Will you continue your work?
LEEZA I have so much passion for my role as a health advocate. It is a wonderful way for me to empower my audience to show up in their lives and navigate more effectively through whatever health crisis may enter their world. I have seen so many families unravel emotionally, spiritually, physically, and financially. I see so many families bury the caregiver before the diagnosed individual. We have to encourage each other to “take our oxygen first.” There is so much isolation and so much depression. I will continue to look for ways to offer help, healing, hope, and hugs for all those husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who struggle to do the right thing.
I’m entering my seventh year with my mineral makeup line, Sheer Cover. It has given me a tremendous opportunity to communicate with an audience of women who sometimes put themselves last on the list. I always say as women, we need to know where we’re going and look good when we get there! That’s why, this year, I will introduce a new line of hair extensions! They are beautiful and will really help transform the lives of woman and boost their confidence. Add my Sheer Inspiration Life Coaching, and we can really make a difference. I find people who choose to access a coach have less stress and more peace of mind. Reaching out to another for help, insight, and another point of view is often the healthiest approach to a finding solutions. Our caregiver coaches have been the saving grace for many who have reached the end of their emotional roads. I love being the conduit through which stories of striving and surviving find their way into people’s hearts. That’s why my Hollywood Confidential radio show has been such a blessing in my life. Throughout the United States and Canada, we touch the hearts and minds of listeners who are seeking not only entertainment, but also what I call “life support.”
My professional life mission is simple: offer products, programs, and services to enhance the lives of women and their families. How lucky am I that I get so many ways to do that?